Brussels Flower Carpet and Cafe Blanc : Lebanese Orange Blossom Drink

750,000! That’s how many flowers it takes to cover Brussels’s central square, the Grand Place. Every other year a carpet of colorful begonias is laid out in the historic city centre, the vibrant and extraordinary spectacle that turns the plaza into a fairy tale vision. It’s not hard to embellish the Grand Place, which is often voted as the most beautiful square in Europe. Ornate Baroque guild houses and Gothic town hall buildings line its periphery, and side streets bearing names like ‘butter’, ‘cheese’, ‘herring’, etc. reflect its origins as the main marketplace of old Brussels. Today the shops are still around, although most of them hawk chocolates and tacky souvenirs. But the Grand Place retains its majestic aura, and it’s easy to understand why this place is still one of the busiest tourist sites in the city.

I first visited the Grand Place on a cold winter day when the square was all but empty. Like much of Brussels, its beauty left a strange impression on me of something grandiose, but aloof. It took the flower carpet for me to see Brussels in a different light–more colorful and more joyful. What a delightful thing it is to block the main square for several days just to decorate it with thousands of petals! All this for a few evanescent moments of beauty.

The flower carpet was first unfurled in 1971 on the Grand-Place by the landscape architect E. Stautemans, and it has been such a success that not only has it returned ever since, similar carpets have been designed by Stautemans in other cities, including Paris, London, Vienna, Buenos Aires and even Colombus, Ohio. Begonias are used for their range of saturated hues and resistance to wilting. (And here’s your useless fact of the day–Belgium is the world’s largest producer of begonia tubers.)

We went on the first day of the flower carpet, which also turned out to be one of the hottest. Under the bright sunshine, the petals looks iridescent, and the colors were almost blindingly bright. Against the worn grey of the 17th century buildings of the Grand Place, the reds, yellows, and greens looked even more vibrant.  I admired the carpet long enough to feel the prickly rays of sunshine on my bare shoulders and then we retreated into the shade of the side streets.

Maybe, it was the effect of the sun or the colors, but for the first time in months I felt relaxed and happy without some anxiety lurking in the back of my mind. Once at home, I decided that it’s time to enjoy some café blanc, one of my favorite beverages, that always makes me feel as if I’m on vacation.

Café blanc is a bit of a misnomer because this Lebanese drink contains no coffee at all. It’s just hot water flavored with orange blossom, and it’s like sipping air perfumed with flowers. It’s not overwhelmingly heady, however, and the same principle of dilution that works in perfumery applies to this drink. Mixed with water, orange blossom tastes not just  floral, but also green, citrusy, spicy and warm. The first sip reveals a zesty freshness, but what lingers on your lips is the taste of honeyed petals. It’s a drink to sip slowly as you feel the setting sun on your face. Or, by contrast, as you curl up with a book on a cold winter day when sunshine seems like a distant memory of a summer that flashed by in a flurry of red petals.

Café Blanc, Lebanese Orange Blossom Drink

1 cup of boiling water

1 Tablespoon orange blossom water

Pour a cup of hot water, add orange blossom water, stir and enjoy. You can add a teaspoon of lightly flavored honey, if you prefer your café blanc sweet.

Curl up in a comfortable armchair, sip and imagine that you’re living your fantasy life on the Riviera.

For guidelines on purchasing orange blossom water or to read my other recipes using this complex seasoning, please see orange-blossom-water tag.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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68 Comments

  • Lucas: I’ve seen how they were making this carpet, it was shown in evening daily news in Poland the other day. A beautiful thing it is! Gorgeous pictures as well, as always!

    Your orange blosson drink reminded me of my lemon infusion, I haven’t done it for a while, but as we speak my thirst for it is growing. Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow, will be great for a weekend. August 23, 2012 at 7:34am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Lucas. I saw the making of this carpet on TV as well, and it was pretty impressive. Apparently, it takes several months to plan and design this event. So, I made sure that we go on the first day, although friends mentioned that it was lovely even after a couple of days. It was so colorful! August 23, 2012 at 9:46am Reply

  • Barbara: Gorgeous pics! I myself feel like I’m on vacation as I read this post. Thanks, V! August 23, 2012 at 8:35am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re welcome! Cafe blanc is my favorite drink of chilling out. I should mention that on very hot days, I just mix orange blossom water into the cold water, rather than hot. It makes the perfume more subtle, but the drink is still very pleasant. August 23, 2012 at 9:47am Reply

  • Amy V: Oh my, that orange blossom drink sounds heavenly! I must get hold of some decent orange blossom water, it’s one of my favourite scents.

    I love the bold designs in the flower carpet too – great photography! August 23, 2012 at 8:49am Reply

    • Victoria: The big diamonds were so striking, and then I loved how the whole design looked from various angles. They’ve used lots of colors from the Belgian flag–red and yellow (with some dark brown to stand in for black). August 23, 2012 at 9:50am Reply

  • OperaFan: Thanks for sharing this beautiful sight, dear V. That recipe is so simple, even a lazy bone like me can make it!

    Is that you in the last photo? Just lovely!

    a:) August 23, 2012 at 9:21am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure to share! It was such an exhilarating sight. We had the most hectic week, everything that could go wrong did, but when we stepped into the square, we just fell under the spell of the colors and none of the things we worried about mattered as much anymore.

      Yes, that’s me, hiding in the shade. :) It was so hot in the middle of the square! As Nikki said, those were some of the hottest day we’ve had. August 23, 2012 at 10:07am Reply

      • OperaFan: Well, you look as cool as can be, and isn’t it great to have all your troubles overshadowed just by the sight of something so wonderful?

        Cheers! August 25, 2012 at 3:39pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you! I was covered head to toe in sunscreen. I wilt in the heat, although as I’ve discovered here, I wilt even more without any sun. :) August 25, 2012 at 3:51pm Reply

  • Nikki: Love the recipe! Thank you. I can probably make it with Rosewater, too. I love the Rose Syrup used in Rose Lassies in India, so fragrant. Thank you for the lovely photos and description, your historical narrative is always very interesting! Crazy weather you have had over there, hotten than in the Arizona desert. August 23, 2012 at 9:26am Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t tried it with rosewater, but I bet that it would be great. When you dilute rosewater, you can taste much more of the citrusy notes. It’s great in lemonades. And yes, in lassi! Rosewater goes so well with anything dairy. I’m tempted to make rose scented pannacotta this weekend. August 23, 2012 at 10:54am Reply

      • Nikki: Oh, that would be just great and decorate them with rose petals. Maybe even color them a petty pink…I haven’t made panna cotta in a while, such a delicious dessert~! August 23, 2012 at 12:31pm Reply

        • Victoria: That would be the ultimate girly dessert! There is a book of desserts by Laduree and it’s full of pink and rose-flavored things like that. I don’t own it, but I’ve enjoyed browsing through it at the store. August 23, 2012 at 1:38pm Reply

  • Jillie: Literally brilliant photos, Victoria. How amazingly vibrant and spirit-lifting. You look really sassy in your green dress – and happy.

    I am now going to make myself a Cafe Blanc. Also assume it would work with rosewater? I like mint tea; unlike the Moroccan version it doesn’t actually have any tea- just a big bunch of mint steeped in hot water, and it is very cooling and digestif.
    x August 23, 2012 at 9:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Jillie, thank you! It wasn’t hard to take colorful photos of that carpet. It was so bright and beautiful! I was glad to wear my green dress for the second time this summer (the first two months were so cold!)

      You can try adding a bit of rosewater to your mint tea. Now, that would be much better than just rosewater by itself. The citrusy facets of rose work so well with the cooling, green notes of mint, and this combination is often used in perfumes as well. August 23, 2012 at 10:57am Reply

      • Jillie: Oh, wow, yes – what a lovely combination. Another new drink to try, thank you. August 23, 2012 at 11:42am Reply

        • Victoria: You’re welcome. Hope that you enjoy it! August 23, 2012 at 12:09pm Reply

  • Marie: I adore the green dress you’re wearing! May I ask where did you get it?
    (I assume that’s you in the picture, right?) August 23, 2012 at 9:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it’s me! The dress is by Bershka (owned by the same company as Zara). August 23, 2012 at 10:59am Reply

      • Marie: Thanks. I’ve never heard of Bershka, but I love Zara. August 23, 2012 at 11:33am Reply

        • Victoria: Their selection is very similar to Zara’s, similar prices too. According to the website, there are no Bershka stores in the US, mostly Europe and Asia. August 23, 2012 at 12:09pm Reply

  • Domestic Goblin: Thank you for this post. I have never knowingly tasted orange blossom water before. Does it taste similar to bergamot? August 23, 2012 at 10:00am Reply

    • Victoria: Very different! Bergamot is citrusy and peppery, and orange blossom water is floral. If you’ve smelled perfumes like Jo Malone Orange Blossom or Serge Lutens Fleurs d’Oranger, you might know what orange blossom smells like. The water, which is a by-product of orange blossom distillation, smells and tastes greener. But it depends on the brand. Do try it, if you have a chance! It’s such a great flavor. August 23, 2012 at 11:03am Reply

  • Rachel: Your blog never fails to delight and I love all of these latest posts. I’m embarassed to admit how little I know about Belgium. So i love reading about it on your blog. The photos are an extra treat. :-)

    Off to find me some orange blossom water. I so want to try this recipe. Do you know if Dean & Deluca carries it?

    xoxo August 23, 2012 at 11:50am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Rachel! I’ll confess that until I came to Belgium, my knowledge of Belgium could have been summed up in a couple of phrases: Brussels is the capital of the US, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot was Belgian (not French, as he was always at pains to underscore). :) Learning about this complex, little country has been enjoyable, even if day to day interactions with its fiendishly complex bureaucracy leave me exhausted. Oh well… August 23, 2012 at 12:13pm Reply

    • Nikki: You can find orange and rose water in Middle Eastern stores and some Asian supermarkets. August 23, 2012 at 12:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oops, Rachel, sorry for missing your last question.
      Yes, Dean & Deluca should definitely carry orange blossom water. When I shopped at the store in NYC, I remember that they stocked orange blossom water from France in bright blue bottles right next to vanilla extract. August 23, 2012 at 12:37pm Reply

  • Andy: I love this idea—I could also see it as a delicious variation on the rose tea I like to make, using white tea and orange blossom water with a tiny bit of orange blossom honey. My sambac jasmine has been blooming profusely this summer, and along with using the flowers to make a scented sugar and a jasmine fragrant tincture, I love to steep them in some hot water for a refreshing drink like this one. Also, the pictures of the floral carpet are lovely! It’s a sight I hope someday to behold myself! August 23, 2012 at 11:51am Reply

    • Victoria: Andy, your tea recipes are so inspiring. You can be sure that I will be making orange blossom flavored white tea tonight. I also bought some linden blossom water, and I’m curious to experiment with it. It has a milder flavor than orange blossom water, but it’s so close to the perfume of linden flowers.

      I hope that you get to visit Brussels one of these days. The flower carpet takes place every other year, but the years it doesn’t visit Brussels, it’s held elsewhere in Belgium. The distances here are very short, so it’s easy to travel around and make these discoveries. August 23, 2012 at 12:41pm Reply

      • Andy: Thank you, I always love to share about tea. I’ve never heard of linden flower water, but I’m sure it’s fantastic—the green notes might meld nicely with cucumber in some kind of lightly dressed cucumber salad? I have a grandfather who was originally from Antwerp, so if he ever goes back to visit, and I am asked to join along, perhaps we could schedule to go during this special event. August 23, 2012 at 1:10pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s from the company called Thiercelin 1809, and they have other floral waters besides the usual ones like orange blossom and rose. I like your idea of adding it to the cucumber salad. There is a traditional Armenian recipe for cucumber salad flavored with orange blossom water, and it’s delicious. I will try making it with linden blossom water instead. August 23, 2012 at 1:46pm Reply

          • Andy: Thanks for the tip! I’ll definitely have to look into getting some linden blossom water. August 23, 2012 at 4:44pm Reply

            • Victoria: They also have something called Hamamelis Water, which I think is witch hazel. Although I have never heard of it being used in cooking. August 23, 2012 at 6:06pm Reply

  • Nancy A.: The Grand Place certainly placed an impressive show along with the chic woman in the green dress. Beautiful! August 23, 2012 at 12:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Nancy! It was a fun day–sun and lots of flowers. Can’t ask for more. :) August 23, 2012 at 1:25pm Reply

  • Gnosmic: You’re lovelier than your gorgeous photos, Victoria. I visited Bruxelles nearly twenty years ago and was mesmerized by its sights, smells, and tastes (those guafres with still-molten sugar baked in!). And I’m happy to see that the gimmicky but fun bar Le Cercueil is still in business! I hope to return someday. August 23, 2012 at 12:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your nice compliment! :)
      Ah, those waffles are so good. Brussels style waffles are crisp and airy, while the Liege style waffles–the ones you’re talking about–are just heavenly. The smell of the caramelized sugar and vanilla from these waffle stands can be noticed at some distance. August 23, 2012 at 1:43pm Reply

  • MB: Of course your exquisite taste extends to your wardrobe! The dress is a knock-out and you look terrific in it! I’m boiling water this very minute to try cafe blanc for the first time. It’s cloudy in Venice today and just barely cool. Yesterday, my first teasing glimpse of autumn – the barely discernible shift from pervasive sun to slanting golden light. And the eucalyptus leaves are starting to cover everything outside – unfortunately, not in the thrilling style of the flower carpet of the Grand Place. Thanks for sharing photos as well as the begonia tuber fact! August 23, 2012 at 2:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much! I really love dresses with the 50s style skirts. And I love color. I realized at one point that I had so much black in my wardrobe that I looked monochromatic. Color really makes me feel better. A friend just gave me a beautiful cushion covered with pink silk, and just looking at it makes me smile.

      It was very warm here today, but it already smells of fall. I see leaves turning, and I know that the summer is almost over, which makes me a bit sad. August 23, 2012 at 3:25pm Reply

      • Daisy: I had that feeling too about a year or two ago. Looking at my closet revealed a sea of black, black, black, black . . . and some military green from a vintage flak jacket.

        So I have been trying to wear more color and put a moratorium on the black :-)

        Love the dress! It’s so pretty! And the photos of the place look amazing. Yummy yummy café blanc too :-) August 24, 2012 at 10:25am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you, Daisy! The dress was something like 20 euros, so I couldn’t resist. I also got a similar style in peach-pink but with a slightly slimmer skirt. Color therapy!

          But I have to admit that black is so convenient. I wore beige pants the other day and when I got home I realized how dirty they got from simply walking around, sitting on a subway, carrying a grocery bag. And what can be more elegant than a simple black dress! I just try to mix it up. August 24, 2012 at 12:10pm Reply

  • Apollonia: Great post today, Victoria, with fabulous photos, as usual. So happy to read of your day without any anxiety lurking in your head or heart! A day to treasure, for sure! The picture of you was so delightfully pretty, the first thought I had was that you looked like you smelled good! And then I thought, how does someone who loves to cook and bake manage to stay so slim? Bravo Victoria! Ciao! August 23, 2012 at 2:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! I’m glad that you enjoyed this little walk through Brussels with me.
      As I get older, staying the same weight takes more effort, I admit! At least, around here, one does so much walking. The distances are too short for a subway or a bus, but long enough to get a nice walk every day. August 23, 2012 at 3:34pm Reply

  • DimSumBxl: This picture of you was taken in front of my house at the Grand Sablon! What a coincidence :-)
    Have you already visited Senteurs d’Ailleurs’ new premises on Place Stéphanie? I work there and if I’m not mistaken, you have visited our previous perfume shop on Avenue Louise. August 23, 2012 at 2:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Wow! What a coincidence! Yes, that’s exactly where it was. One of my favorite spots at the Grand Sablon too.

      I haven’t visited Senteurs d’Ailleurs at your new premises (just one visit to Avenue Louise so far). In fact, I was planning to come yesterday with a friend, but we got held up. I’m going to stop by sometime next week. I very much liked the former location, and the new one looks even more beautiful based on the photos I’ve seen. August 23, 2012 at 3:36pm Reply

      • DimSumBxl: Although still a perfume addict at heart, I work in the cosmetics department at Senteurs d’Ailleurs now (there are two shops now, one dedicated to fragrances, the other specialized in cosmetics with a skin therapy centre, all at the same location). Please pop in and say hello, my colleagues and I will be happy to show you around.

        Dimitri August 24, 2012 at 1:35am Reply

        • CedriCeCCentriC: That is so funny. I live in that house too, with Mr DimSumBxl. But, I’m not affiliated to Sd’A. LOL August 24, 2012 at 6:59am Reply

          • Victoria: I love it! And I agree, that’s too funny! Out of all buildings in Brussels, I picked the one where you guys live. :) August 24, 2012 at 12:13pm Reply

  • Rowanhill: Inspired by your recent orange blossom related posts I have also done some experimenting. Thank you for the inspiration. Zao at rue du Bailli had already Seville A L’Aube and had samples too.
    Good move to go to see the flower carpet on day one. I went on the third day and the colours were no longer that good – no wonder with this heat. But wohooo, it is raining finally. I never thought that would make me so happy August 23, 2012 at 4:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: I know what you mean! I was happy to see some rain drops too. Today I let my guard down and didn’t apply enough sunscreen. Sure enough, sitting here right now with a red, sunburnt nose! A friend visited recently and gave me a small handheld fan. I’ve sprayed it with orange blossom water and felt as if I were in the blooming orange grove.
      Thank you for another recommendation. I haven’t been to Zao yet. Sounds familiar though. August 23, 2012 at 6:26pm Reply

      • Nikki: What a great idea, spraying the fan with eau de toilette! August 24, 2012 at 10:28am Reply

        • Victoria: Denyse of Grain de Musc sprays hers with Seville a l’Aube, which would be even sultrier than just orange blossom blossom water. That’s such a great fragrance. August 24, 2012 at 12:13pm Reply

  • Ariadne: So lovely! & I mean you, V, the most. :+).
    Thank you for sharing these amazing photos.
    I know the word Hamamelis in Greek means chamomile. Chamomile tea (brewed from the flowers) is an antiseptic that can be ingested or applied to irritated skin. The tea tastes sweet, not unlike vanilla to me but definitely unique. Chamomile is a small xeriscape plant like Immortelle and is also grey leaved with small yellow flowers.
    Hamamelis is also a plant known as Witch Hazel, a native to my Connecticut, USA. Witch Hazel, an astringent tonic, is distilled from this shrub’s bark however. Funny it also has small yellow flowers, without odor, and blooms in the dismal New England month of February. August 23, 2012 at 6:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, A! :) I learn so much from all of you. Now, the chamomile water makes more sense to me as a flavor. Chamomile oil is used in perfumery and in some commercial flavor preparations. Next time I’m at the store, I will have to at least give it a sniff.
      And it would be perfect right now for my sunburnt skin! August 23, 2012 at 6:42pm Reply

  • Austenfan: Great post, lovely pictures and I still think the Piazza del Campo is prettier, and I adore La Grande Place. I didn’t know about this event in Belgium at all, I love these huge displays of flowers. August 23, 2012 at 6:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: Siena’s Piazza del Campo is definitely one of the most striking. I wish I could go during Palio horse race. I watched an interesting documentary about a rider preparing to compete in this race and I have been fascinated by Siena since.

      I had no idea about either until the night before when we watched the local news and saw the volunteers working on the carpet. Apparently, to make the carpet, they use no soil at all and stack the flowers in such a way that they would not be blown away by the wind. August 23, 2012 at 6:51pm Reply

      • Austenfan: I have been to Siena several times and was once there during preparation for the Palio. Italians have such great sense of visual style. It was stunning to watch the different Contrade wave their flags, on that old square.

        Where do you get your orange blossom water? I like the idea of this drink.
        I make myself iced tea these days. Or cold tea rather. I use either green, or white tea, flavoured mostly. Steep overnight in the fridge in a jug of cold filtered water. I did a really nice jasmine one the other day and the smell was really lovely. August 24, 2012 at 10:05am Reply

        • Victoria: I’ve purchased mine at the local bio store, but I also love the one I got from this spice shop:
          http://estore.thiercelin.com/
          I cannot recommend their spices highly enough. The quality is excellent, and the selection is great. I just placed an order, but if you are ever in Paris, I recommend visiting the boutique. August 24, 2012 at 12:16pm Reply

          • Austenfan: Thank you for that I’ve added it to my favourites. August 24, 2012 at 2:20pm Reply

  • Tatiana: What beautiful photos of a beautiful art installation! And you look even more beautiful in your green dress! I am glad you are able to find things to help ease the stress of moving to another country and dealing with bureaucratic hassles. August 23, 2012 at 6:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Tatiana! It was probably one of the highlights of my stay in Brussels so far. The city isn’t really a city in a traditional sense, but it’s rather several small towns fused into the city. On one level, it makes it exciting to explore and discover different neighborhoods, each with its own flavor. On another, it’s exhausting to get things done here. Since we’re mostly still learning the ropes, exhausted is our normal state. So, it was a pleasure not to feel that, for once, for a day! :) August 23, 2012 at 6:55pm Reply

  • Kaori: The carpets are stunning! Thank you.
    I have got a bottle of orange blossom water from Tunisia. Next to that, there were bottles of geranium water and rose water. They taste more or less similar?

    Kaori August 23, 2012 at 10:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: I had no idea how colorful begonias are! They are almost fluorescent and they have this scintillating quality too, a bit like silk or mother of pearl.

      Geranium water is minty and green, with a rose flavor that becomes pronounced later. It’s different enough from rosewater to buy it as well. Geranium flavor goes really well with raspberries, blackberries, and currants. I noticed many recipes in old cookbooks calling for a geranium leaf to infuse into milk or cream. So, it would be great in custards and creams. August 24, 2012 at 12:20pm Reply

      • Kaori: Thank you for your suggestion. It is useful as always :) I will buy geranium water next time. August 24, 2012 at 9:19pm Reply

        • Victoria: Please let me know what you think about geranium water and also what you end up doing with it! August 25, 2012 at 6:00am Reply

  • Peggy: I made Cafe Blanc for breakfast this morning–it was delicious! Thanks for the inspiration and the recipe! August 26, 2012 at 10:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for letting me know, Peggy! Very happy to hear that you enjoyed it. I’m actually having a cup right now, as I’m catching up on my reading. August 26, 2012 at 3:44pm Reply

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